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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Oskar Landi

Photo by Oskar Landi

“Jazz allows you to create a dialogue with people from different cultures and different styles,” says Juancho Herrera, the Venezuelan-born guitarist and singer-songwriter, “and if you know the traditions of what you’re playing, you can make it work.” Herrera will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Friday, July 26th, with a band of long-time collaborators. The Jazz Gallery had a chance to speak with him over the phone about bending musical genres, misconceptions about South American and Latin American music, and the cuatro.

The Jazz Gallery: On your most recent recording Banda (2013), you collaborated with Yayo Serka on percussion and Ben Zwerin on bass, both of whom will be playing with you on Friday. You’ll also be joined by Rafi Malkiel on trombone and Sofia Tosello on vocals. Can you comment a bit about the music that you’ll be performing on Saturday?

Juancho Herrera: They are songs based from South America, but the material we’ll be playing will be mostly new. There will be some songs from that record and the previous record as well, but about 70% of the material is going to be new songs that we’ll be recording in the fall. 

TJG: Can you say a few words about your relationship with the members of the band?

JH: I’ve been working with these musicians for many, many years. With Yayo, we’ve been part of Claudia Acuna’s band for almost eight years now, and I’ve been playing with Ben for close for ten years. Rafi Malkiel is the first person I met when I came to New York to play in 1999, so I do have a pretty long-standing relationship with all of them. I have performed with all of them in many other situations in New York and abroad. There’s definitely already a magic in this group: it’s like a family.

TJG: On your website, you describe yourself as a “world/jazz/experimentalist” musician. How do you approach the challenge of writing and performing music that crosses genre boundaries? Have you had to deal with audiences’ and critics’ misconceptions about your music? 

JH: The first misconception is that when you talk about musicians of South American origin or Latin origin, people tend to relate either to Cuban music or Brazilian music, which are both amazing; I’ve worked on those styles very deeply. It is a bit unknown for people to know certain rhythms related to Venezuela, Bolivia, or other countries—that’s the first thing.  People aren’t really sure what that kind of music sounds like with jazz harmony and interaction.

The second thing is that I do sing and I’m a songwriter, but in the songwriting community, in most of the groups there is no interaction, unlike in jazz. So, when they see that you play the cuatro and sing, then they’re not really sure if it’s going to be a concert where you’re going to have solos or spontaneous interaction, which is something that I’ve had to deal with. I think New York is a place that’s already so filled with people and cultures from all over the world that not to be drawn into these kinds of experiments is almost like being blind in the city, you know?

The people that are going to be part of this concert are from all over: Sofia from Argentina, Yayo from Chile, Ben from France, Rafi from Israel–it’s a mixing in itself. For me, that’s the beauty of jazz. Jazz allows you to create a dialogue with people from different cultures and different styles, and if you know the traditions of what you’re playing, you can make it work. In the end it’s all organic: it’s about interaction, dynamics, having your own personality as a musician come out. That’s what’s important to me. I’m the vehicle allowing the music to happen, but it’s definitely a group effort.

TJG: Can you speak a bit about the cuatro and your own relationship to the instrument?

JH: It’s a smaller version of the guitar—or, maybe should we say that the guitar is related to all the instruments that came to the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s. Before the guitar, there were a few instruments, like the vihuela, that came before. These had four or five strings, and some of them also had doubled strings. There was not a norm at that time of what a guitar should be or look like, or what the standard should be. The cuatro is one of those early versions of the guitar that stayed in Latin America: if you go to any country in Latin America, you’ll find different versions of this small instrument. It’s an instrument that is made with some Venezuelan woods with a particular timbre, and the rhythms that I play with all relate to either flamenco or western African music. Most of the time, it’s used as a rhythm instrument, but in the last century some musicians have started to make it a solo instrument.

It’s an instrument with a very warm sound and one that all we kids in Venezuela get to play with. It’s almost like a toy, since it’s smaller than a guitar. In every house there’s one cuatro, and there are kids who play this instrument. It’s the first instrument I ever played, and it’s a beautiful sounding instrument. I think because it only has four strings, it might seem somewhat limited, but that’s why my training as a guitarist helps me. When you’re playing guitar in jazz, you’re not limited to be playing the function of the bass all of the time–you’re playing inversions, colors. I use the cuatro in that sense–I’m playing superimpositions of chords, which the instrument is basically designed for.

TJG: The “concept of song” is mentioned on your website as being essential to your music. Can you explain what you mean by that? 

JH: As you know, jazz started from improvising over melody lines that were already composed for songs. Of course, improvisation has taken us to many different approaches to jazz; I wanted to keep the song as a form that would survive without any other element and without myself. The lyrics and the melody and the form have to stand on their own. When we play around these songs, we go and come and do all these things with different rhythms and sometimes the music sounds a little like hip-hop or jazz, but the song should stand on its own.

I make sure that the melodies and the chords and the lyrics are consistent—it’s not completely free, although there are a couple songs where I do improvise the lyrics. This is related to pop music in Venezuela and Cuba as well, where you have duels between singers—it’s almost like a rap battle, but it’s really in the form of a song in meter and form. I do a couple tunes where I do improvise lyrics, but I keep the songs that are complete and strong, and people can relate to that, too. That’s also something that I think a lot of jazz has lost: people don’t really pay attention to writing lyrics that somebody like a Leonard Cohen might write. I’m far from these great masters, but I do listen to them for inspiration.

TJG: For those unfamiliar with your music, can you recommend any recordings of your own or that of inspirations for your music? 

JH: There are a few names that definitely are very important to me. In the jazz world, definitely A Love Supreme—or anything by Coltrane—is one that really influenced me in how the interaction of a band should be. Then, there’s an album called Circulado by Caetano Veloso, a key songwriter in Brazilian music. That album showed me that there were possibilities of mixing traditional music from the Americas and Africa without trivializing the traditional music. For me as a guitar player, there’s an album by Bill Frisell called This Land from the early ’90s when he had the trio with Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron, and also the music of Aquiles Baez, another guitarist.

Juancho Herrera performs at The Jazz Gallery this Friday, July 26th, with Yayo Serkin (percussion), Ben Zwerin (bass), Rafi Malkiel (trombone), and Sofia Tosello (vocals)Sets at 9 and 10:30 p.m., $20 general admission and FREE for Members and SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.